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New York

Ben Shahn (American, b. Lithuania, 1898-1969)

New York, 1947

  • Tempera on paper mounted on canvas and panel
  • 36 x 48 in. (91.4 x 121.9 cm)
  • The Jewish Museum, New York
  • Purchase: Oscar and Regina Gruss Charitable and Educational Foundation Fund, 1996-23
  • Art © Estate of Ben Shahn/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

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New York

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New York

Ben Shahn’s nostalgic and dreamlike composition New York recontextualizes a visual pastiche of images culled from memory and reality, from present and past. It is a haunting and disjunctive scene based on two photographs Shahn had taken years earlier on the Lower East Side. By borrowing elements from the photographs and combining them in new ways on the canvas, Shahn creates a collage-like effect. From one image, a photograph he took in 1936 outside Gelbwach’s fish market, Shahn borrows the image of a bearded traditional Jew—a fish peddler—at right, and a scale, at left. He replaced the carp painted on the shop’s window in the photograph with a pike. Because Shahn left out the glass-plated storefront visible in the original photograph, the fish floats surrealistically in the air at the center of the composition.

In the foreground of the painting, a young boy wearing swimming trunks lies prone, apparently in the street. This figure has been taken from the second source photograph (c. 1932–35), which also includes windowed apartment and factory buildings surrounding a park. Such a sparsely landscaped city park would have had great significance for Shahn, who as an adult remembered his childhood yearning for the countryside of his native Vilkomir, Lithuania, and as a boy in Brooklyn searched desperately for whatever small patches of green might be found in his new urban milieu. The young boy in the painting, one of two in the original photograph, perhaps alludes to Shahn’s younger brother, Hymie, who drowned at the age of 17 near the artist’s home in Truro, on Cape Cod, in 1926.

In 1967, Shahn observed: "For imagination is images, traces of experience, the residue of impacts made upon us by all sorts of forces both from outside and inside ourselves. It is such images retained, and the power to re-invoke them, the power to re-group them and out of them to create new images according to our uses and intentions." In New York, using a limited array of personally resonant symbols from his photographs of the 1930s, Shahn communicates a powerful visual impression of a particular immigrant Jewish experience—one haunted by an irredeemable sense of loss yet recognizable to those who share a similar journey or to others who may seek their own roots through a connection to the collective experience of a remembered past.

Ben Shahn was born in Lithuania in 1898. He immigrated to the United States with his family in 1906 and grew up in a working-class Brooklyn neighborhood. Skilled in many mediums, Shahn became a painter, photographer, illustrator, and printmaker. As a young man, he worked as a lithographer’s apprentice, and he later continued to use text as an important element of his designs. Shahn’s career became established in 1930 with a series of paintings concerning the controversial murder trial of Ferdinando Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. Political themes are often part of his work. He used his art to depict social ills and raise awareness about social injustice and is associated with the social realism movement of the 1930s. Shahn died in New York City in 1969.